A GRADE-A MISTAKE I suppose I ought to write about the California recall election, but I have nothing new to say about that particular indictment of the American electorate. I suppose I ought to write about the outing of a CIA agent by a White House bent on political retaliation, but Bush and Rove will no doubt get away with it no matter what I say. I suppose I ought to write about the Middle East, but I cant really comprehend whats going on there. So instead I want to write about something closer to home for me right now: grades. Thats right, the grades that students get in school. The American education system places too much emphasis on grades, and it stinks. It stinks ethically, and it stinks pedagogically. It might even be why people like George W. Bush and Arnold Schwarzenegger get elected in the first place, and why Americans like me understand almost nothing about Israel, Palestine and Iraq. Heres a case in point: When Im not writing this column, I teach English composition at a very good public university. Last Friday, one of my students, a freshman named Elizabeth, came to my office to discuss an analysis paper she has to turn in this coming week. The paper is a tough one for most students, requiring them to identify the assumptions underlying the argument of a book weve just finished reading. The book is called Enough: Staying Human in an Engineered Age, by Bill McKibben. It argues that technologies like genetic engineering, nanobotics, and artificial intelligence threaten what it means to be human, and therefore the government should restrict research in those technologies. In other words, the book asks students to think hard about a difficult issue of public policy. Elizabeth, bless her heart, is a thoughtful, conscientious student. She received a C+ on her previous paper, and it wasnt good enough for her. She wants desperately to do better on the next assignment. So she came to my office last Friday to discuss her idea for the analysis paper. It turns out she has a terrific idea: She wants to take some concepts shes been learning about in her philosophy class--concepts having to do with the meaning and value of human actions--and point out how McKibbens book uses those same concepts as the basis for his argument. (If your brain is hurting right now trying to follow all this, be glad you dont have to write this paper. But it would probably be a good thing if you tried.) I told Elizabeth that I thought her idea for the paper was swell. I said it was wonderful that she saw a connection between the ideas in her philosophy class and the ideas in her English class. Then I pointed out that it was going to take some careful writing for her to explain the complex philosophical concepts for her reader, but I said I thought she could do it. As I said this, Elizabeths freckled face turned red, and it looked as if she might start crying. I asked her what was the matter. Youre such a hard grader! she said. Maybe I should do an easier idea. I dont want to get another C! That tells you everything thats wrong with grades. Here was a student with an original, challenging idea that would have stretched her brain and made her stronger in every way a college assignment should make a student stronger. But she was willing to throw the idea away because doing something easier might give her a better grade. And I couldnt blame her. Theres a good chance Elizabeth would have gotten all muddled trying to explain her philosophy-class ideas, and the paper would have been a mess. I might have had to give her another C. The American system of education, you see, is all about the final product. And the final product, for us, isnt the student. Its not even what the student learned. Its just that computer-printed and stapled thing called the paper. Which is probably the least important thing in this whole process. You see, I can admire Elizabeths intellectual struggle all I want. I can watch her mind grow more powerful and more nimble in that struggle with ideas. But Im not allowed to grade her intellectual growth. Im not allowed to grade our conversation in my office. Im not allowed to grade her discovery of a difficult concept or her effort to articulate it. Heck, its easier for both of us if she just chooses a simpler idea and successfully explains it in simple terms, so I can reward her with a happy B, and we can both go away content. Which is just why people like Arnold Schwarzenegger and George W. Bush get elected. They think simple thoughts and explain them in simple ways that American voters, having been rewarded their whole lives for avoiding difficult ideas, can feel comfortable with. Israel? Palestine? Iraq? You cant get an A from American voters by forcing them to deal with complex topics like those. Just ask Jimmy Carter. Let me make it clear: Im not advocating grade inflation. I dont think I should give Elizabeth an A just for trying hard. My point is, I shouldnt have to give her any grade at all. I should simply read her paper, tell her what she can learn from its strengths and weaknesses, congratulate her for an intellectual fight well fought, and send her on her way. Instead, I will hand her the paper back, and Elizabeth will care about only one thing: Did she do better than a C? For my part, I will have written just those comments on her paper that will justify whatever grade I think its worth, because I think she in fact deserves justification for that grade she cares so much about. We both will have acted the part of cowards, and the whole idea of learning will be reduced to alphabet soup. American elementary schools, high schools and colleges should give up grades right now. No grades, period. If you are a student, you pass or you fail. You pass if you are engaged fully in whatever intellectual struggle the course calls for. You fail if you dont try. There are good colleges that already work that way, although not many. But without grades, you might ask, how does the graduate school Elizabeth applies to decide whether to admit her? How does the marketing firm she sends her resume to decide whether to hire her? Well, I dont really know, and I dont really care. They can do it any way they want. I recommend, for starters, that they talk to her, make her show them how she thinks (whether she thinks), see if they like the mind inside that head. It would be lazy and immoral for them to reduce her future to letters on the grid of a transcript. This is an old discussion, I know, but I think it needs to be renewed occasionally. The other night I watched a debate among the Democratic contenders for their partys presidential nomination. Not one of them said a single thing that was original. Not one of them seemed to be struggling in any way with his own ideas. Everything they said was rehearsed, predigested, careful, comfortable. They were bland and predictable, every one. Ill bet in school they all got straight As.